This past weekend I did my first shift as hospitality volunteer at a hospice in my community. It’s a small, very personal place and, surprisingly upbeat for a facility that revolves around residents engaged in the final journey of their lives. It is a place where you really need to leave your ego at the door – it’s NOT all about YOU (and yet, it requires your whole presence) and that’s what makes it so special. I knew before arriving for my shift that my friend, and trainer, Sonya, was going to be filling in for an absent kitchen volunteer. I didn’t know that I was going to be seconded as assistant to the chief cook and bottle washer, but, in short, it was a fun way to start the day, and, thanks to Sonya, everything came together effortlessly. The residents’ meals are not institutional in any way. The breakfast that morning was home cooked to suit the individual choices and preferences of the residents as much as possible, and I can say, if they were not the spiciest dishes, they were certainly flavoured with generous doses of loving kindness.
Shortly after we had finished the residents’ meal preparation, and the relief volunteer took charge of the clean-up and lunch preparation, Sonya and I moved out to the front reception desk and my ‘official’ job to learn the role of the hospitality volunteer. The role of the hospitality volunteer is to “promote an atmosphere of welcome for all individuals contacting the hospice or accessing the palliative care centre.” “Welcome” is the operative word.
A few words about Sonya: She’s bright, she’s vivacious, she’s as full of life and as multi-coloured as a rainbow. Her involvement with hospice came as a result of personal experience and both she and her two twenty-something twin boys are passionately dedicated palliative care volunteers. She laughs easily. She’s also a great trainer and she takes this job very seriously. Her actions speak louder than her words. As I watched her interact with family members coming to visit residents, as I listened to her authentic words of welcome and concern, I came to understand that hospitality is an act of giving and receiving the moment as it presents itself – in joy, in grief and in communion.
Toward the end of the day, Sonya asked if I would take a look at a presentation that she felt very strongly about. The presentation, based upon the teachings of Dr. Alan Wolfelt who first articulated the tenets presented, and Greg Yoder and articulated in the book called “Companioning the Dying: A Soulful Guide for Companions and Caregivers”, presents some very powerful ideas about living in the moment and how to companion someone who is dying. Among the ideas presented: divine momentum (“Divine momentum may be the music that inspires dancing. It is disguised in the flow of everyday life. It will happen with or without us.”); sacred silence (“It does not mean filling up every moment with talk.”); meaningful death (“Who determines what is a good death or a bad death?”); respecting disorder and confusion (“Not imposing order and logic”) and the concept I like best of all – NATO – Not Attached To Outcomes (“We are free from feeling responsible that we possess something the dying must have. They will die with us or without us”).
“Not Attached To Outcomes” applies, not just to our experience of companionship with those who are dying, but also to our entire lives. It means not expecting reality to conform to our ideas, but allowing us to be shaped and transformed by experience. Does this mean that we don’t need goals? Not at all! Goals are important in providing direction and giving us something to strive for. What we need to understand is that our goals themselves often change as we journey towards them and that it is the journey that defines both the goal and ourselves. Dr. Angeles Arrien, a cultural anthropologist, in her teaching on “The Four-fold Way”, sacred teachings of tribal peoples on practical living, describes the role of the Teacher, “to be open to outcome and access wisdom by learning how to trust and be comfortable with states of not knowing. Trust is the container out of which the qualities of wisdom grow clarity, objectivity, discernment and detachment.” “Not Attached To Outcomes” entails letting go of the ego and becoming comfortable with “not knowing”. We cannot know the future and our experience tells us that the future we come to experience is not the future we have imagined.
Greg Yoder tells us that “Companioning is about going into the wilderness of the soul with another; it is not about thinking you are responsible for finding a way out… the willingness to walk into regions of mystery with no answers or even clear direction… it is about curiosity, not expertise… there is not right or wrong. It is their journey… It is their story.” Not Attached To Outcomes, once you leave your ego behind, you realize it’s your journey, too… It’s your story.
Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t’ai chi ch’uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition. Miles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article cannot be re-published without permission.